Older workers can offset economic impacts of population ageing

The share of the workforce aged 55 plus has more than doubled from 9 per cent in 1991 to 19 per cent in 2021 and is projected to reach 40 per cent by 2050.

A new research brief published by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) says the demographic shift is being “led by women re-entering work in midlife and delaying retirement”.

Lead author and economist Rafal Chomik says Australia will have a “large talent pool of older people who will be healthier and more educated than ever before”.

“Older Australians are a critical part of the workforce and economy,” he says. “More mature workers could increase economic prosperity. Given the right opportunities, older workers could offset the adverse economic impacts of population ageing.”

Read more: Ageism in the workforce

However, he says that if older workers are to thrive and prosper in the labour market, then Australia needs to do more to dismantle remaining barriers related to healthcare, training, discrimination and work conditions, and ensure that employers have the right strategies to recruit, deploy and retain older people.

In November 2020, a research discussion paper commissioned by Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) said that the proportion of workers over 65 would settle at around 28 to 33 per cent and that over-65s would never outnumber younger adults.

Lead author Dr Jane O’Sullivan says the countries with the most elderly people don’t have fewer workers than us, just less unemployment. She argued that ageing was a good news story for Australia.

“Longevity has deferred, rather than extended the period in which the elderly need more healthcare and aged care.

“High levels of immigration can slow, but not prevent, population ageing. But the cost of extra infrastructure and education to sustain population growth is greater than the avoided costs of pensions, healthcare and aged care,” she says.

Read more: The health costs of long hours at work

CEPAR chief investigator Professor Marian Baird says care demands are one of the commonly cited examples of barriers to work, especially for women.

“Care demands change over time, but are still widespread. We see the demands decline as children grow up but care for adults increases and peaks around the age of 60.

“For example, more than 40 per cent of women aged 50 and over who are working part-time, and about a third of those working full-time, are involved in some sort of caregiving.

“If organisations want to take advantage of demographic change, then they need policies and cultures in which employees can access the flexibility they require.”

Prof. Baird suggests phased retirement and flexibility for late-stage careers would allow older workers to remain in the workforce longer, especially if they can continue to access part of their retirement benefits.

“Welfare support for parents and carers, especially the elder care that many older workers are involved in, allows workers to continue their careers more sustainably at different life stages, without forced exits or excessive interruptions.”

The research brief presents strategies on what employers can do to manage a multigenerational workforce. This includes the new 3I framework – Include, Individualise and Integrate.

“For organisations, managing mature workers well brings productivity benefits. For individuals, high-quality work fosters successful ageing and the fulfilment of caring responsibilities. It’s a win-win,” said CEPAR’s Professor Sharon Parker.

“Despite these benefits, many organisations remain reluctant to recruit mature workers and, when they do, there are few policies and practices in place to support them.

Read more: Older Australians pessimistic about employment prospects

She says we must help prepare employers for an ageing workforce.

“These strategies help employers better Include workers over the life cycle, Individualise their responses to different circumstances, and set up processes that better Integrate workers of all ages in an organisation.”

Author Amal Awad told SBS that our society diminished older people by treating them as “problems to solve, rather than people who may still yet have purpose, joy in big things and small, and many reasons to feel they have more to do”.

“People who are headed towards their twilight years do not lose interest in their lives. Their desires magnify as they see opportunities fade. We need to foster a society that sees the value in all stages of life, one that allows ageing people to continue working, to have purpose beyond our perceptions of the grandparent.”

If you’re interested in more on this topic, EveryAGE Counts is presenting a webinar from 3-4.30pm on Tuesday 29 June on the latest research on the value of fully including older workers in a diverse, multi-generational workforce.

Have you run into issues with regard to flexible work arrangements? Does the need to provide care limit your employment opportunities? Have your say about work for older Aussies in the comments section below.

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